The Happy Heart School

Living lifelong human care, development, education, learning and service for all.

Living Freedom

FREEDOM

“Keith – made me rethink education,” shared my husband during one of our couple times when we were reflecting about the deeply significant experiences and challenges that life had presented us, individually and as a couple, over the last 20 years.

False Barriers

And Keith – for me, well, it was a whole host of inner work, but underlying much of the search was about realising a meaningful and successful fully inclusive school experience for Keith. I was deeply and systematically questioning what were the barriers for inclusion in mainstream schools in Singapore – whether it was being in the public education system or the private international schools system – and I arrived at this: it’s the exams! The exams – which bears the implied desperate need to benchmark and grade our children, driven by mass perceived notions and expectations of what age-appropriate outcomes ought to be, in order to select an elite that ensures that the society or the perceived optimal solution of organising society doesn’t fall in the future – is the singular anxiety and barrier to fully inclusive schools.

The way we perceive and organise education as a society today is still not yet linked to developmental science or a wide breadth and depth of ways or measures of living life. Instead it has become instituted based on arbitrary cultural and historical norms and proxies of status, success, and potentials for social mobility (perceived as social justice) through academically gridded, graded and ranked outcomes. Outcomes are currently categorised as language, math, science, arts, sports, humanities, and are largely determined by perceived experts.

But what we are really presenting to a whole beautiful generation of children is just this one-dimensional sad measure and tragedy of the formation of a sense of self purely in and based upon a grid, in competition when in community. The state of education today is, at the essence of it, pitting one child against the other, rather than raising and educating deep and beautiful human beings, however they come – who understand and live tolerance, deep respect, celebration and honouring of self and the others in the process of growth and maturing as a member of the human race! And regretfully, we miss out on all the undiscovered truths and freshness that our children bring for us to renew as a human race.

The other barrier to fully inclusive school that I’ve observed relates to questions of adequacy: being skilled and having the resources. This just translates to being confident and creative, and taking the time and doing the work to learn and gain understanding and become an expert parent, or expert teacher, or expert therapist, or expert clinician, for that child. Most people I’ve met are not afraid to do this, yet we still don’t see fully inclusive schools today. Seriously, at the elementary school level in Singapore – not even one school.

Rising out of brokenness

What is this underlying these deep barriers to a loving and nurturing educational experience for the school community? Insecurity. Both factors narrow down to this – the adults’ perceived inadequacy and helplessness, and I borrow a word that Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche, who has lived deeply in order to survive creating, building and maintaining 30 years of holding together a robust community of 400 communes worldwide that educate and live love: brokenness.

The path to freedom is ironically not perfection or ability or control, nor plain unreflective daring or impulsitivity or rebellion nor passive submission. Instead the path to freedom is through accepting and understanding brokenness, and cultivating the grace to confront our own limitations, unknowns especially in surviving the pain of our broken dreams and to find the strength and faith to rise out of that experience, smiling and shining and a tad wiser. Smiling and shining because we had dared to take a deep dive and resurfaced with the proverbial pearl. Broken dreams are merely ideas or ideals that were formed during certain experiences in our lives and in the process of realisation, such ideas are proven to be non-realisable in a particular form or format by life or the existing circumstances.

Instead of naming that as being naughty, bad, failure, and living with shame, or guilt as a consequence, if we rename that experience of confronting and rising out of our brokenness and broken dreams as learning, then we just need to re-examine deeply and then get up, and re-work our lives or way of living to adapt our talents, skills, and dedication to the reality of the circumstances or we refine our dreams or visions or ideas or ideals or we refine the timing of realisation of our dreams, or we do all of the above. In other words, we learn to be flexible. We adapt, but in joy, as we are learning and unfolding towards our dreams.

Bad Form, Mama

I was discussing with Keith’s Occupational Therapist and we were discussing about his protests (sometimes this is communicated as throwing, but increasingly he makes appropriate gestures and sounds of protests) and what is appropriate for the school to respond to this regarding supporting his learning, and also in consideration of his safety and the safety of other children. We were both celebrating the amazing leap in his communication and going up the developmental ladder, but there was serious tension and anxiety regarding the unknown of how Keith would respond to the daily changes in the environment by the school.

For example, he would get cross or would question why a flower pot was moved but in an agitated manner, and more than once have just flung the flower pot on the floor. What he is really saying is this – Hey, why did you move that, because you know, it was a lot of effort for me to map this environment and get my proprioceptive bearing, and now you go about and mess it up and it’s really frustrating, and I can’t tell you in words yet and you are there looking smug about your pedagogy and trying to prep and chirp me up, but you are so not getting that I don’t feel safe when you do that without sharing with me your intentions or plans or consulting me, so here I will show it to you – bam, he pushes the biggest button that makes the adult that he is communicating with him flip or tune in to the intensity of his emotions. I can laugh about it now, but oh boy was it truly painful learning for all of us. Keith has perfect cognitive and logical communication regarding his frustration about his learning to build a sense of internal and external order, but has terribly bad expression, which gets him into trouble and gets all the adults upset and guilty, and feeling inadequate.

And it was really interesting because as a family and as a person, I’ve struggled so much about this and I was truly bad form mama – yelling at him during family meals, losing my entire composure and calm and setting such a terrible role-modelling for my children, humiliating him in front of everyone by timing him out, or lording over him and strapping him down by saying, do this! And then feeling so exhausted from the whole emotional intensity of not being able to co-regulate my own child and then days after, I would still feel guilt and shame at my own brokenness at the falling apart, and for not being able to hold the harmony of my family dynamics in love, gentleness and joy.

Measure

So, all it takes is an environment that supports learning in an open, flexible, adaptive and loving manner, for the child and for the adult. A fully inclusive environment is simply providing a safe and secure environment for the child and the adult to explore, to learn about each other, and to support each other through growth and maturing, in discovery and service of humanity and the earth.

However, we can’t do it. We haven’t yet been able to provide fully inclusive learning environments for our youngs because we’re still tied to needing an outcome. We need the guarantees. We are still too insecure. We need to cling on a proxy, however false and however removed from reality that proxy is as it is based on a projected reality. And however the proxy stresses us up, and makes us feel like we’ve failed or are at risk of failing, we still pursue it unthinkingly at the risk of ruining our health, especially our mental health, as we are unable to be at peace.

That’s because where we are in education is a collection of adults –  parents, educators and policymakers – who do not yet have an alternative set of agreed measure of accountability to weigh whether their love and life work are adequately and appropriately serving the children and society. And ironically, this collection of heartful adults find themselves in a trapped cycle of over-providing, over-protection, false security, in their love and effort to provide a perceived better future for their children, in terms of intellectual, material, physical, emotional, spiritual – any edge will do – in this perceived ladder of upwards social mobility, which is really representing either their inner call for social justice, or an inner call to feel safe, in providing a perceived mark closer to a better future for their children. It is as if a skill trained up in a 5 year old or 13 year old child today will provide a probability of a better future or a better chance of survival or a more comfortable and less suffering for the child in the future, especially when the parent is no longer around.

Music

Where does freedom come in then? Freedom is simply freeing this arbitrary measure, and knowing that there are no perceived guarantees about someone’s future, and living this with conviction, daring and faith. It is about being safe and secure today, in the present, because when we are not at peace in the now, we are not being kind to ourselves, and we are likely also not being able to be kind and graceful to another person.

And so with this insight, both my husband and I were able free ourselves – from the exams chase, and the need for this arbitrary or any arbitrary measure.  We have found the tough truth and love about life, and whilst we’re gifted the time to journey together as a family, we will live simply – with laughter, honouring one another’s life work and celebrating our gratitude for our time in life.

Life is rhythmic and life is time, like music. There are beats. There is the time signature. There is the tempo. There is the song. The notes go up and down. There are minor chords and there are major chords. Some chords are discordant, come chords take us home. Some phrases are fixed, some phrases are odd. Some stories are direct, some meander. There are many instruments. Some are loud, some are soft. Some stay silent, some are unheard. All coming together, for a joint moment, and every time, it is an orchestra playing – life.

Peng-Ean Khoo
August 28, 2012

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